Technology At The Table

How Technology Made its Way Into The Family Dinner Scene

WORDS BY: JAQUE CRACIUNESCU
PHOTOS BY: EDWARD SINGLETON

With two sons in baseball practice more times a week than not and both her and her husband working full-time jobs, Long Beach resident and parent Erin Fox and her husband still manage to set aside time to make family dinner happen on the regular.

Fox admits that meals usually consist of something quick that she can easily scrape up, but what she refuses to compromise on is everyone eating together. And although both her boys- ages 8 and 11- own cell phones, she makes it a point to keep them both off their devices while at the table- although only for four out of the seven nights of the week.

“Monday through Thursday [devices are] off limits,” Fox said.

However, Friday night signals the welcome of the weekend, which for the Foxes means swapping the table for the couch and each other’s faces for the TV screen. Along with that comes free rein for everyone in the family to use their tablets and cell phones.

CSULB sophomore accounting major Jeffrey Nguyen’s two younger cousins- ages 5 and 6- have even more lenient rules when it comes to their device usage.

“I don’t remember a time where [my cousins] ate and didn’t use their iPads,” Nguyen said.

He said his cousins’ parents allowed them to use iPads since they were 3 years old.

“Now since they’re so accustomed to it, if you try to take it away from them while they eat they’ll cause a big fuss,” Nguyen said. “They’ll start crying. It’s just bad now.”

Although technology advances almost every day, screen etiquette and rules are still largely unestablished, which can be a source of tension for families struggling to strike the right balance. Not only is precious family time at risk, but children’s overall developmental well-being is too, when devices begin to encroach on their family meal times.

“They learn everything from table manners to responsibility to how to evaluate situations to family values. It just all depends on what they talk about,” said Dr. Richard Tuveson, child development and family studies professor at California State University Long Beach.

Electronics tend to interrupt  family dinners, diminishing valuable family time as schedules become more filled with activities and school work.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of married-couple families with children where both parents worked was at 60.2 percent in 2014, whereas in 1998 it was at 51 percent.

This percentage is predicted to increase as children’s schedules fill up because of college admissions requirements, and it is no wonder that family dinners are becoming more challenging to coordinate.

This is no exception for the Fox family, with Erin and her husband running a very tight schedule most nights a week rushing to pick up their sons from baseball practice almost immediately after getting off work.

“We’re off at 5:30,” Fox said. “We pick them up, we come home. We have 30 minutes to pull something together or order, and we eat between 6:30 and 7:30pm. It just depends. We keep a lot of stuff in the freezer, but then ‘it’s do you have everything to kind of pull it together or are you lazy or is there time?’ We’re at the baseball fields six days a week. So, it kind of messes with dinner time a little bit.”

However, it usually is well worth the effort to prioritize dinner time, as countless recent research studies have made the importance of shared meals abundantly clear.

In 2010, Columbia University found that children who share family meals at least five nights a week lower their risk of developing unhealthy eating habits and drug dependency problems, while additionally tending to academically outperform their peers who more frequently eat on their own. Cornell’s recent research shows that children who eat family meals together demonstrate fewer signs of depression.

“There’s definitely the benefit of eating more shared meals together,” said Michelle Loy, nutrition and dietetics of food science professor at CSULB. “In families who eat together the children do better in school, so educational well-being or intellectual well-being is improved, relational well-being or social well-being are also, because they learn social skills and relational skills at the dinner table by being able to talk to family members or other adults in their lives.”

However, now that children are getting cell phones at younger ages, this valuable dinnertime communication is often sacrificed at the hands of devices. According to a 2010 Pew Research Study, 75 percent of 12 to 17 year olds own cell phones, which is up from 45 percent in 2004.

When paired with adult cellphone ownership rising to 85 percent, this means more cell phones around the dinner table, distracting from important family bonding time.

But this issue is where the waters get murky, since parents often are unsure where to draw the line with technology.

For single father Terrence Degley and girlfriend Tamara Jenkins, TV and phone screens have almost entirely replaced conversation with Degley’s 11-year-old daughter.

Their family eats strictly in front of the TV for dinner time, where cell phones are permitted despite Jenkins’ disapproval.

“He’s always on it. There is no conversation,” said Jenkins.

Degley agreed that he is often on his phone, usually browsing the Internet during dinnertime, but so is his daughter, who received her first smartphone just over a year ago.

For Jenkins, an ideal family dinner situation  would be “actually sitting down, talking and communicating- a tell-me-about-your-day type dinner.”

Despite children’s infatuation with  these devices, parents still have control in helping shape their children’s habits.

“They’ll pick up on what mom and dad are doing or any adults in their lives or older siblings, so the parents can be great role models,” said Loy.

Veronica Guevara, mother of three, said that in her household devices are off limits during dinner time. Her only exception to the rule is if the house phone rings. While none of the children own cell phones, all three have tablets.

“It’s a distraction.” said Guevara. “When we have dinner it’s our ‘family come-together’ where we all discuss our days.”  

However, screen time should not necessarily be looked at dichotomously as either good or bad but rather as a medium by which families can use in whichever way they deem suitable.

In the case of television, some families manage to use technology to their advantage by incorporating it as a means of starting conversation, as the Schmidt family often does.

Karla Schmidt, mother of a 12-year-old boy, said that her family of three sits at the table to eat but that they’ll regularly have the TV on in the background.

“It’s mostly just for conversation- commenting on the TV, on what we’re watching,” said Schmidt.

In the case of Jaclyn Warren, a second year graduate student studying marriage and family therapy at CSULB, television was more of a distraction in her household growing up.

“I think everybody was in a rush to eat their dinner because you wanted to go see whatever was on television,” said Jaclyn Warren, a second year grad student studying marriage and family therapy (FMT). “So I think the aspect of ‘oh let’s talk and get to know each other’ was gone.”

It can be easy for families to fall into the trap of misusing technology at the dinner table by relying on it for healthy family bonding.

It’s absolutely the interaction that makes the difference,” said Tuveson. “Is the TV background noise? Is it being incorporated into the conversation? It can be a lesson. A TV can be a lot of things. It can be a very powerful learning tool.”

But if the focus is not directed back towards the family, it can be easy for technology to create a divide between family members. Although technology is meant to connect us, it becomes a matter of whether family members are actually being connected to one another, rather than to those at the other end of a text conversation.

“I feel especially now in this society we use technology for almost everything. But in a way that’s a setback to people- especially socialization skills,” said Jennifer Shon, a senior accounting major at CSULB. “If you look at the kids today the way we interact with each other isn’t the way it used to be. It divides the line between emotion and what we’re actually trying to say.”

Tuveson said that it all comes down to striking a comfortable balance.

“It’s a portal to the social world of the age, and it’s part of the challenge to figure out how to do that well,” said Tuveson, “You have to decide what kind of family you want.”

Whether to outright ban or freely allow technology during dinner time is ultimately up to the family to decide. But it is important to remember that with busy schedules, families would largely benefit from the attempt to make dinner time a priority regardless of technology’s involvement.

“Because we’re all going different directions during the day, dinner is our time together to find out what happened throughout the day,” said Fox.

And for this reason, families should be wary of potentially losing their valuable dinner time to distraction, since technology can either connect or disconnect its users.

As Tuveson said, “If everyone’s sitting in front of their screens at dinner, you might as well be on separate planets.”